The debate about the nature of Stalinism and the USSR is one which still takes place regularly on the Left. This is not surprising because in my experience I believe Stalinism has set back the cause of socialism by lightyears, associating the word in the consciousness of many with unbridled state power and unrivalled terror. Whilst the left-liberal intelligentsia in the West was ingratiating itself with Stalin- the Webbs, Louis Fischer, Henri Barbusse, and even Paul Sweezy for a time- theorists such as Leon Trotsky, Bruno Rizzi and others were engaged in a critical discourse on the nature of Soviet development. I wish to discuss one particular essay, Trotsky’s 1935 work The Workers’ State, Thermidor and Bonapartism and analyse how it casts light on some wider issues of Marxist theory.
Trotsky writes that:
‘There is no doubt that the USSR today bears very little resemblance to that type of Soviet republic that Lenin depicted in 1917 (no permanent bureaucracy or permanent army, the right of recalling all elected officials at any time and the active control over them by the masses “regardless of who the individual may be,” etc.). The domination of the bureaucracy over the country, as well as Stalin’s domination over the bureaucracy, have well-nigh attained their absolute consummation.’
Yet despite this:
‘At the same time, we established the fact that despite monstrous bureaucratic degeneration, the Soviet state still remains the historical instrument of the working class insofar as it assures the development of economy and culture on the basis of nationalized means of production and, by virtue of this, prepares the conditions for a genuine emancipation of the toilers through the liquidation of the bureaucracy and of social inequality.’
Trotsky, here and elsewhere, appears to be equating the concept of a workers’ state with nationalisation of the means of production with the potentiality for Socialism, conditional on the ‘liquidation of the bureaucracy and of social inequality.’ Later he writes, ‘Progress towards socialism is inseparable from that state power that is desirous of socialism or that is constrained to desire it.’ This informs his conclusion that the USSR is a form of ‘Soviet Bonapartism’ because the State, although controlled by the Stalinist bureaucracy- ‘degenerated’- is based upon the new form of property relations established by the proletarian revolution of October 1917.
Let us look at this concept of Bonapartism. In the 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, from which the term derives, Marx writes:
‘As the executive authority which has made itself independent, Bonaparte feels it to be his task to safeguard “bourgeois order.” But the strength of this bourgeois order lies in the middle class. He poses, therefore, as the representative of the middle class and issues decrees in this sense. Nevertheless, he is somebody solely because he has broken the power of that middle class, and keeps on breaking it daily.’
The Bonapartist state, therefore, is characterised by a certain independence from social classes whilst at the same time ruling in the interests of a particular class. For Marx, because ‘state power is not suspended in the air’, Napoleon I was ruling in the interests of the reactionary small peasant and thus acted as the upholder of the bourgeois property relations established by the first phase of the French Revolution in 1789. Indeed, Gramsci’s similar concept of Caesarism talks about the elevation of a ‘great’ individual to a position of arbitration over warring classes, and Trotsky writes of Bonapartism ‘raising itself over the two struggling camps in order to preserve property and order.’
In this understanding of Bonapartism, it is easy to see, therefore, why Trotsky holds that despite the relative autonomy and domination of the bureaucracy, the USSR could be seen in the 1930s as a workers’ state because the bureaucracy is or can be made to be ruling in the interests of the working-class. I would like, however, to draw what I believe to be an important distinction between Bonapartism established on the basis of Soviet-style nationalisation of the means of production and Bonapartism elevated on the base of capitalist property relations.
In his challenge to the Sonderweg (‘special path’) narrative in German history and conceptualisation of ‘bourgeois revolution’, the Marxist historian David Blackbourn draws a distinction between the changes in the mode of production from feudalism to capitalism on the one hand, and the establishment of bourgeois democracy on the other; in other words, between the economic base and the political superstructure. He does this to argue that despite the predominance of feudal elements in the upper echelons of the Kaiserreich right up until 1914, Germany was unambiguously a capitalist economy so that it had no ‘special path’ which could account for the horrors of Nazism; and that, therefore, those horrors are not inconsistent with the development of bourgeois capitalism. This argument was to counter historians such as Arno J Meyer whose The Persistence of the Old Regime was unclear on these points, and those historians whose understanding of a ‘bourgeois revolution’ conflated a change in the mode of production and the establishment of bourgeois democracy. Of course, the two are often part of the same revolutionary process, and the capture of state power is often a prerequisite for the establishment of capitalist social relations (as in France) but, as the example of Germany shows, a theoretical difference can and must be drawn.
Trotsky and all good Marxists are of course aware of this distinction and indeed the notion of Bonapartism is predicated on the relative independence of the state apparatus. Nevertheless, the basis of the distinction between the bourgeoisie as the ruling class and the bourgeoisie as the class in charge of the state apparatus rests upon the assumption that the bourgeoisie derive their power not, in the final analysis, from their direct agency as a class over the levers of state power but from their private ownership of the means of production and the concomitant social, economic and political power which stems from this fact. Thus, despite the rule of the Kaiser, of Napoleon III, of Benito Mussolini etc, the bourgeoisie- the capitalist class- were the ruling class of their respective country.
In the USSR, however, it is by no means clear that this distinction can be made between the ruling class and the class who rule in the sense of controlling the state apparatus. When a small group led by the Romanian Trotskyist David Korner (Barta) argued, consistent with Trotsky’s position, that ‘the USSR is a state which is based on the property relations created by the proletarian revolution and which is led by a workers’ bureaucracy in the interests of new privileged strata’, this distinction is made implicitly. To what extent, however, can the working-class be considered the ruling class and the USSR consider a workers’ state, if the working-class have neither control of the means of production (which is controlled by the State) nor any direct political agency over that State?
In the Communist Manifesto, Marx writes:
‘The immediate aim of the Communists is the same as that of all other proletarian parties: formation of the proletariat into a class, overthrow of the bourgeois supremacy, conquest of political power by the proletariat.’
‘We have seen above, that the first step in the revolution by the working class is to raise the proletariat to the position of ruling class to win the battle of democracy.’
Tony Cliff makes this point well in Trotskyism After Trotsky although I do not necessarily agree with the conclusion to which this step of his argument ultimately contributes (that the USSR was ‘state capitalist’). Trotsky himself defined the parameters within which the USSR could be considered a workers’ state in 1931 in terms of whether ‘the proletariat of the USSR has not forfeited the possibility of submitting the bureaucracy to it, or reviving the party again and of mending the regime of the dictatorship, without a new revolution, with the methods and on the road of reform’. This view which still retains a notion of potentiality and implicitly admits that the USSR is not a workers’ state.
Trotsky elsewhere draws a distinction between whether or not the working class require reform or revolution to change the USSR but this is unconvincing: through which avenues might this reform be carried out in the bureaucratised and Stalinised state and party apparatus? In materialist terms, the concept of the degenerated workers’ state to which Trotsky subscribed is based on a metaphysical ‘proletarian kernel’ in the essence of the USSR which has no outward manifestation, only the potential for expression. To hold, therefore, that the USSR remains a workers’ state is to me a form of scholasticism. Thus, if the USSR is a form of Bonapartism, the state apparatus elevated itself so far above the working class that it snapped the gilded thread which under capitalist Bonapartism connects the state to the bourgeoisie. In Isaac Deutscher’s elegant prose:
‘Thus the feverish economic expansion, the general unsettlement which accompanied it, the eclipse of social awareness in the masses, and the emaciation of their political will formed the background to the development by which the rule of a single faction now became the rule of a single leader. The sheer multiplicity of the conflicts between the classes and within each class, conflicts which society itself was unable to resolve, called for constant arbitrament, which could come only from the very pinnacle of power. The greater the unsettlement, the flux, and the chaos down below the more stable and fixed that pinnacle had to be. The more enfeebled and devoid of will all social forces were, the more stronger and more wilful grew the arbitrator; and the more powerful he became the more impotent they were bound to remain.’
This discussions begs a major question which we must consider at another time: whether or not the bureaucracy itself constituted a ‘ruling class’ as Cliff and the International Socialist tradition would hold in their theory of ‘state capitalism’ or, following Rizzi, Max Schachtman and James Burnham would hold in terms of ‘bureaucratic collectivism’. The latter view has some strength if we remember that it is not only capitalism, but all preceding modes of production (such as feudalism) had ruling classes. Why, then, could a ruling class not establish itself on the basis of state-owned property?
Trotsky concluded in 1935 that:
‘Bonapartism, by its very essence, cannot long maintain itself; a sphere balanced on the point of a pyramid must invariably roll down on one side or the other. But it is precisely at this point, as we have already seen, that the historical analogy runs up against its limits. Napoleon’s downfall did not, of course, leave untouched the relations between the classes; but in its essence the social pyramid of France retained its bourgeois character. The inevitable collapse of Stalinist Bonapartism would immediately call into question the character of the USSR as a workers’ state. A socialist economy cannot be constructed without a socialist power. The fate of the USSR as a socialist state depends upon that political regime that will arise to replace Stalinist Bonapartism. Only the revolutionary vanguard of the proletariat can regenerate the Soviet system, if it is again able to mobilize around itself the toilers of the city and the village.’
The question for a later discussion, therefore, is which way the USSR rolled and what sort of characterisation can we make of it?